By Kate Proctor
Another year has rolled around and we find ourselves cleaning up equipment, planning for next year, tidying up paperwork before the year-end deadline, and getting ready for Christmas. 2022 has brought some things we may not have been expecting. We experienced loss, both in people close to us, and people who seemed larger than life who would continue forever. But no matter what is going on out there, life on the farm rolls along, as it always does with hardships and successes, some things remaining constant, and others changing immeasurably.
With regard to the crops, 2022 seemed to be a fairly calm year. We had a major rain event early in the season that caused troubles by drowning out some low areas, which allowed weeds to move in. Then we had a prolonged dry period. With rain clouds circling all around, the difference of a mile could mean the difference between making a crop and not.
Perhaps one of the biggest things to happen around our place was that it was the first year since the farm’s beginning that we made no hay. That was not because we had a super bumper crop the year before. My Dad had finally decided it was time to disperse the herd. It was a tough decision – Shorthorn cattle have been a mainstay in my Dad’s entire life. Nothing taught me patience and optimism like watching my Dad work with cows.
Long-term readers of this column may know that I do not share my Dad’s love of cows. Around our place, it has become one of those ongoing “jokes” that is born from true feelings. I admit – they look nice grazing placidly on sunny summer days, or with the beautiful autumn leaves forming a colourful backdrop. We have even noticed people, dressed in formal attire, sneaking in for photos on their way to a prom, or wedding, or some other fancy event. This is the ultimate in romanticizing something that is very different in reality. No one who works with cows wears lace or silk. Not for long, anyway. In my experience, cow manure is kind of like machinery grease. I just have to look at the stuff, and I am covered with it. There is no such thing as just “nipping in” to have a quick check of the cows to make sure no one is calving while on your way to something else. You will no doubt, get some on yourself somewhere.
But in the grand scheme of things, that is small potatoes. In one of my first columns, way back in 2013, I wrote about cows. “For those of us who don't see the beauty in cows, they can be the source of great frustration. They are the things that stand between us and the wedding we were supposed to be attending half an hour ago. They are the reason we get called home during the family picnic. They have ruined many a supper. They make keeping a clean and orderly house difficult. They have no respect for newly planted gardens, fields, or baby trees. In fact, they love baby trees - especially the expensive ones. They are the reason we don’t worry about paying income tax.” Not to mention the pain of being on the wrong end of a mama cow with a new calf, or getting trapped between a bull’s head and a concrete partition.
2022 was notable not only for the decision about the cows. It was also the year of the Great Purge. As I was going through many years’ worth of paper, I came across three issues of The Farm. It was a quarterly publication, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, and cost 50 cents an issue. The first issue I found was from winter, 1952, and one of the headlines on the cover read: “Are Beef Cattle a Gamble? Special 3 page fold-out showing 27 years of corn and cattle prices”.
The magazine itself served as a wonderful reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Filled with advertisements for things long gone, it was also amazing to read 70-year-old advertisements that sounded like they could’ve come out of last week’s issue. “New comfort stalls, raise milk production 10 per cent, cows rest longer”, “For Bigger & Better Crops in ’53 Test Your Soil”, and “Bigger in power, in performance, in economy,” tractors.
But the cover story – “Are Beef Cattle a Gamble”, by Charles E. Hughes, was what caught my eye. The magazine had a very detailed analysis, including a graph that showed 24 years of beef prices, steer-corn ratio, personal income levels and historic events that had affected the profitability along the way. It also detailed “encouraging factors”: lower feeder-cattle cost, less pork, higher take-home pay for workers, plentiful corn, and “our growing population has produced two million more beef eaters.” Of course, it also included “discouraging factors”: all-time high cattle population, higher production cost in labour, freight, and taxes, and slaughter cattle prices lower in proportion to the cost of feed.
The timeline included droughts, World War II, U.S. government price ceilings being added and removed, as well as the Korean War. The opening paragraph, though, maybe told me all I needed to know: “Cattle feeding can be the biggest gamble in the game of chance called farming. Play a good hunch with the right kind of cattle and you make a killing; make a bum guess and you may have to mortgage your farm to square accounts.”
Yep – the more things change the more they stay the same. Beef cattle are still a gamble, and farmers always are buffeted not only by the weather, but by many global events out of their control. But on the positive side, in our rural communities we also still have a sense of community. Neighbours help each other, and we have a good team that helps us bring another year to a close. And no matter how many things go wrong, any day where we all go home in one piece is a good day. ◊